Is "conservatism" compatible with civil rights?
This question arises from an article I read that argued that, in 1964, a branch of the Republican party began to oppose civil rights legislation - not because they were racist, but because it was incompatible with their ideology. This had the unintended consequence of making the Republican party the party of the "white nationalist".
Zack Beaucham reported in A Republican intellectual explains why the Republican Party is going to die, on Republican scholar Avik Roy's argument that the problem in the Republican party began in a branch of the Republican Party that felt that a small, conservative government ought not be in the business of forcing desegregation. According to their ideology, this was not a proper role of government.
The consequence, according to Roy, is that the Republicans became the party of segregation and the Democrats became the party of civil rights.
This had a double effect, Roy says. First, it forced black voters out of the GOP. Second, it invited in white racists who had previously been Democrats. Even though many Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act in Congress, the post-Goldwater party became the party of aggrieved whites.
This has raised the question in my mind of whether there can be a conservative argument for civil rights or if, instead, this is an area within which "conservatism" is fundamentally flawed.
To assess this problem, we need to focus more precisely on where the problem exists. It would be wrong to attribute the problem to "conservatives" since this term is far too broad, and it is objectionable to attribute this view to all conservatives when many would disagree with it.
More precisely, it is a problem with the libertarian political philosophy.
Libertarian argues that the only thing that is immoral are "acts of aggression", where "aggression" is understood as the first use of violence.
There are two major arguments for this philosophy.
One, the natural rights argument, claims that people simply have a natural right to be free of aggression. Any act of aggression effectively enslaves its victim - turning him or her into an unwilling servant of the ends or goals of the aggressor. That is intrinsically wrong.
The other, a utilitarian argument, argues that to permit aggression leaves everybody worse off. If we allow acts of aggression, we create a situation where individuals pursue their self-interest through aggression against others rather than through production and trade. As more and more people demand that wealth be forcefully redistributed, less and less wealth gets created. Consequently, people get into more and more violent fights over less and less overall wealth.
[NOTE: I know it is tradition to spew bile at any opposing philosophy and hatred of anybody who holds it - to assert that it has no redeeming characteristics. In spite of its popularity, there are reasons to object to such a way of proceeding. I favor an option that begins by trying to understand how a decent person may be tempted to adopt the view one is criticizing, and then pointing out something that such a person may have overlooked.)
Libertarianism supports a form of equal rights in that it condemns acts of aggression on anybody regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other property. It doesn't even matter if the agent has a choice - no choice that an agent makes him or her a legitimate object of aggression. The prohibition on aggression is absolute.
However, one must remember that the prohibition on aggression is a prohibition on the first use of violence. If somebody violates this principle, nobody is prohibited from using violence in response, either in self-defense, the defense of another, or to inflict punishment.
An argument can be made that a libertarian society would abandon discrimination because it is not profitable. A business wants the best employees - regardless of whether they are black, white, male, or female. Consequently, they would blind themselves to these irrelevant factors and focus only on the potential employee's ability to do the job.
Again, libertarians see their philosophy as inherently non-discriminatory.
However, we must ask, "What is the job of a business?"
Answer: To give the customers what they want, of course.
What if it is the case that what the customer wants - what those And, in doing so, those potential customers with the most money are more influential - more
Businesses do not just provide customers with "that which the customers can use to make money". Business provide customers with that which satisfies entertainment, social, aesthetic, and cultural values.
What if the cultural values of those with the most wealth - the most economic power and, thus, the ability to influence the nature of the economic goods - are bigoted? What if, for example, the vast majority of economic value is in the bank accounts of white males who value an environment where they can avoid interacting with blacks and women, for example, except as servants?
Libertarianism would still prohibit acts of aggression, but libertarianism would create an economy that serves these bigoted market values. It would have to do so - as long as this is what those with economic power wish to purchase.
There is a parallel argument that applies to hiring itself. In hiring, a company offers the perspective employee a basket of goods that suits the employee finds valuable enough to agree to take in exchange for labor. What if the best employees are willing to take less salary in exchange for working conditions that excludes interacting with people of a certain race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and the like? Then, within a free market, a business can and should offer this value - a "whites only" work environment - to its employees in place of salary.
The argument that a business will be blind to race and gender because their only interest is in hiring the best employees ignores the possibility that their customers and their employees may not be blind to race and gender and are building those values into their purchase and employment negotiations.
This form of discrimination would be self-perpetuating. The system would deny the victims of discrimination the economic power they need to change the situation, while the bigots themselves take control of more economic power. This increased economic power then turns into an increased ability to express their bigoted sentiments in the market, and push businesses into adopting and serving those interests.
According to the libertarian philosophy, the proper way to bring about desegregation and to end bigotry is for customers to pressure businesses to abandon bigoted practices in their roll as customers. However, the effects of bigotry is to make it the case that economic power is concentrated in the hands and bank accounts of the bigots, and that its victims are left lacking economic power. A person can use their economic power to purchase desegregation and racial and gender equality only to the degree that they have economic power.
Now, let us turn to the two arguments offered in defense of libertarianism.
First, there was the intrinsic value argument - that the use of aggression involves enslaving a person to serve somebody else's values. In this case, we are talking about enslaving the wealthy white bigot to serve the values of the egalitarian.
In response, there are no intrinsic values. The libertarian is summoning a learned emotional response to a situation and using "intrinsic value" as a reason to impose their personal likes and dislikes on others.
This many be a sentiment that it is good to have - that it is good to want everybody to have. After all, to the degree that this sentiment exists in a community, to that degree the people in the community suffers less from aggression. However, this takes us out of the intrinsic value defense of libertarianism and into the utilitarian defense.
Second, the arguments given above are arguments against the claim that this sentiment produces the best overall public good. It allows and makes possible a great deal of disutility brought about when prejudice and discrimination become market values for those who have the bulk of the economic power. Those arguments provide utilitarian reasons for a different set of sentiments.
The original argument is effectively built on the claim that once aggression is permitted there is no principled position on which to stand to prevent that aggression from getting out of hand. It is a slippery slope argument.
However, that assumption is false. We can draw a line based on the very same principle that was used to defend the libertarian non-aggression principle - a line determined by overall social utility. What we have here is an argument that suggests that the bigoted use of economic power - in hiring, and in other market transactions such as home-buying and in who may shop in a store and how they are treated - represent a type of economic aggression that people generally have little reason to tolerate. Drawing a line here is no less arbitrary and prone to slippage than drawing the line at the point originally suggested under libertarianism.
Before closing, I would like to make a brief call out to the desirism theory on which this blog is based. That theory admits that bigoted actions can and do fulfill bigoted desires or values - that is beyond question. However, desirism does not look for the action that fulfills the most desires. It looks at the desires that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit. There are few reasons to promote or even permit bigoted sentiments, and many and strong reasons to condemn them. The reasons that exist to condemn them are reasons that exist against respecting and building those values into their market transactions.
Strict libertarianism gives free reign for the expression of bigoted values in the market. Whatever those with economic power want, that is what those with economic power shall have. This is a problem. This problem does not spring from a misunderstanding of libertarianism. And libertarianism can correctly claim to be entirely non-bigoted in its restriction on the use of aggression. However, insofar as libertarianism permits the expression of bigoted values in the market place, it still does a great deal of harm. The flaw exists in libertarianism itself - in its willingness to see bigoted values expressed in the market, not in our failure to properly understand it.